Many Alberta school districts are introducing online options for families uncomfortable with in-person learning, but when it comes to how that divide will impact classrooms of the future — experts say this is uncharted territory.
Calgary's public school students who are starting the year learning online can choose to return to the classroom in February.
It's unknown how those kids will impact the classroom.
Jason Schilling, president of the Alberta Teachers' Association, said it's something they deal with in different ways every school year, but teachers may experience some struggle when trying to bridge the gap.
"Because every child is coming from a different background, and some have more support at home and others don't," he said.
Dr. Brittany Martin of the University of Calgary is a specialist in online learning.
She said successfully supporting students through that transition in February, and again the next fall, means that teachers themselves will require administration and the government to step up.
"We're going to hear that it's about money but to me it's even more about class size and appropriate support for those teachers so that they can make sure that they and their students are in an environment that is safe and healthy and conducive to quality learning," she said.
'They don't need to make it up'
She said the best way parents can help lessen any potential gaps is by trusting in the online program and establishing good communication with the teacher who is overseeing it.
"With these temporary online learning opportunities that are being offered there is an assigned teacher who is a professional at designing learning and will have very strong intentions in how they roll things out that are designed to scaffold the learning and structure it in a way that it can work for the students," she said.
"For the parents who are managing that, making sure that [kids] are following the curricula and following the program as it's being delivered will help them. They don't need to make it up, it's going to be there for them."
Both Martin and Schilling say Alberta teachers are up to the task to ensure no student falls behind.
"I have nothing but confidence in my colleagues who work across this province," said Schilling.
"They're highly professional, they're highly educated, they're creative, resilient and they'll be able to do the work to make sure that students do well. There's always struggle to bridge potential gaps even when kids are in regular school."
Fear driving the decision-making process
The difference in this situation, said Martin, is the level of fear that's driving the whole decision-making process, which is also going to have an impact on how this plays out.
"And then also the sheer number of students that they're going to be dealing with," she said. "But I believe strongly that our teachers are capable and prepared and able to manage the influx of students who do choose to study in their homes and then come back.
Schilling said teachers care deeply about ensuring students aren't left behind.
"I know that with what we just came out of in the spring, teachers on our pandemic survey really expressed a lot of concern for students that they couldn't reach," he said.
"Maybe now that we have more people back in schools there would be a better support network that can be built by school boards to support students and parents through this process."
With all the uncertainty surrounding school re-entry and online learning caused by the pandemic, Martin said it's important for parents weighing the decision to send their kids back to the classroom or keep them at home to do what's best for their individual family.
"It really does come down to what is best for them and their child and not letting other opinions and some of the politics around this sway what they know is right for how their child will learn and what will work for their family," she said.
Martin said these issues are all things we will find solutions to as a society.
"Every generation has had something that derailed the way that we do things and we always bounce back and figure it out, and we figure it out together," she said.